Understanding our values of nature

Above: a view from the Lägern forest outside of Baden, Switzerland, one of the research sites for Katie Horgan’s PhD work. I ran the Lägern ridge while I was training for a marathon this fall.

I’ve always been interested in conservation. Okay, maybe in the beginning it wasn’t a choice. My mother worked for (and now runs) a land conservation nonprofit, and I grew up kicking around the office and volunteering at events.

Some of my first research and jobs in ecology were about topics related to global change: invasive species, contamination, climate change. I was motivated to take these jobs because I cared about the issues and thought that doing research related to them would help.

But these projects were all very much ecology. The grants weren’t written and the studies weren’t designed with an outcome in mind that could be translated to stakeholders or implemented as policy. They were pure basic science: what is happening? Hey, that’s cool (or alarming, or boring, or …. ), and it’s good that we know it now!

Even though so many of our ecology results are framed in the context of global change, including sentences and maybe even paragraphs talking about implications for land management, I’ve never studied conservation biology. Neither have most of my collaborators.

Recently, I have begun to understand how my good intentions and environmentalism don’t help the environment that much. I’ve been doing ecology in a vacuum: I care about “issues”, but those issues are separate from my science (even if they are merged on my Twitter feed). I really like community ecology and understanding species interactions, and that’s what drives my research questions.

I’m not sure that in and of itself is problematic. But what is certainly problematic is the extent to which I didn’t realize what I was doing. It’s hard to expect your science to connect to and inform conservation and planning if you don’t really understand conservation and planning.

One of the things that made me more cognizant of this was the defense of a fellow University of Zurich PhD student, Katie Horgan, last week. Katie’s dissertation was highly interdisciplinary, and it exploded my conceptions of how we think about nature and ecosystems.

Embarrassingly, the big thing that I realized should be obvious: how we value nature depends more on us, than on nature.

(That might seem like a bit of a jump from my first few paragraphs, but I promise I will link it together at the end.)

When I write out my “big realization”, it looks stupid. I find myself thinking that I already knew that. I interact with people every day who think about the outdoors in a different way than I do.

My boyfriend illustrates this perfectly. When I go for a long run, I want to go somewhere new and see a new view. Steve? He would be happy running exactly the same loop around Uetliberg, the local ridge, that he ran the previous week.

“Why do you need to take the train for two hours?” he asks me. “It’s still just a forest.”

The value we place on seeing and experiencing ecosystems is completely different. Running around in the same forest, or similar forests, we pick up different things and take away different experiences.

How does that relate to ecology? In the past few decades, there has been a push to quantify the value of the natural world. We call them ecosystem services – things like clean water, clean air, the provision of fish to eat and wood to build with, nice places to go recreate in. All of these things can be assigned a dollar value and deemed “natural capital.”

This approach can then be used to make policies protecting natural areas. Asking people to identify what is valuable in their landscape helps set conservation priorities. This approach can also demonstrate that neglecting such protection would be economically costly. In some places the ecosystem services approach has worked great, and in others not so much.

Until last week, I have to admit that I kind of saw ecosystem services as black and white: this ecosystem either provides this service, or it doesn’t. This forest provides X and Y. That lake provides X and Z. I saw ecosystem services as something you could measure objectively.

Then I walked into Katie’s defense.

Katie’s research is fascinating. She worked at eight different research sites scattered around the world, from two right here in northeast Switzerland to those in Siberia and Borneo. At each site, she asked people who worked at the conservation areas a series of questions: did they think that ecosystem service X was being provided by this area? What about ecosystem service Y?

This is a seemingly simple dataset and study, but the work and the results are far from simple. Just getting the interview responses, despite cultural and language barriers and all the rest, was a huge feat.

The thing that struck me most from Katie’s talk was that even in ecosystems that seemed in some ways similar – and actually, even at the same ecosystem– the people Katie interviewed had different answers about whether an ecosystem service was provided or not.

In other words: assessing what ecosystem services are provided does depend on the ecosystem. It depends on how people see the ecosystem.

Katie also mined through the responses and deduced how people thought about the value of these conservation areas. Rather than thinking only about an ecosystem service, she classified the responses by what this service corresponded to.

Did people see the service provided as something more utilitarian (“instrumental”)?

Or did they value this service differently, in a more “intrinsic” way – is the service provided something more fundamental, like biodiversity, that just is?

The third type of value is the one that makes me go run in a new place whenever I can – “relational” value, defined by the way that we interact with nature.

Different ecosystem services, which are the metric by which we turn nature into “natural capital”, were valued in a wide range of ways. And importantly, nearly every ecosystem service that Katie asked about was valued in each of the three ways by at least one study participant. In fact, most participants places more than one value on a given service!

Katie’s big question was, what are the things that motivate people to take positive action about biodiversity?

I had been thinking, like a cold scientist, that the natural capital of an area or ecosystem was defined by the ecosystem itself: the biodiversity contained within, the black and white ecosystem services it provided. I thought we had to convince people of that value, and then they would be motivated to protect it.

What Katie illustrated so powerfully was that actually, the value of nature is defined by the people valuing that nature. If we don’t recognize that, then we won’t really succeed with protected areas and conservation policymaking.

And because of that, it’s a little bit stupid for someone like me who leaves human interaction completely out of my research to put in pompous statements about how that same research will inform conservation. The two parts of my brain that think about environmentalism and ecology had skipped a pretty fundamental dialogue that they could be having.

A few days later, I saw the following tweet from Andy Gonzalez, from a presentation by University of Vermont professor Taylor Ricketts at a science conference in Quebec. It distills this point in a different, perfect way.

 

I bet I’m not the only ecologist who needs to mull over that message.

We live and we learn, and I’m trying to become a better scientist and a better person all the time. Part of that is being humble and realizing when you’re being clumsy or just kind of an idiot.

Hearing from inspirational colleagues definitely helps in that process.

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The marathons of 2018.

This autumn I ground away at two big goals: finishing my dissertation, and running my first trail marathon.

A number of people told me I was insane to try to do both of these things at the same time. But everyone has different ways of staying happy and maximizing what they are capable of. For me, it’s essential to have more than one thing to focus on. I have a few friends who must live like I do: they said, oh, that’s perfect!

The last few months of dissertation writing were really hard. Although I made a plan with my supervisor about how to get everything done, work didn’t really proceed according to plan. Some things took longer. Other tasks required waiting on collaborators for feedback. Sometimes I simply realized that I had no idea what was expected as a certain output. I tried to start working anyway, only to have my first attempt deemed garbage.

By contrast, my marathon training was straightforward. I won’t say it was easy, but I knew what I had to do.

***

I didn’t sign up for just any marathon; the Transruinaulta in southeastern Switzerland is mostly off-road and features 1,800 meters (~6,000 feet) of climbing, plus the corresponding 1,800 meters of descents. In order to do a race effort I felt good about, I knew I would have to take training seriously.

I bought a training plan from Uphill Athlete, a company and community run by Scott Johnston and Steve House. I have known about Scott for years through the cross-country ski community (though I have never met him), and I respect his work, experience, and philosophy so much. I knew that whatever plan I got from Uphill Athlete would deliver me well-prepared to the start line. It had been seven years since I last followed a training plan, but at last, I was ready to return to intentional, organized training. I dove in and had confidence every step of the way that I was doing the right thing.

“The right thing” involved functional strength training exercises that did more to rehab my ankle from last year’s ruptured ligaments than anything my non-skiing PT had taught me. It included interval sessions that I found I really enjoyed – a surprise, since in those last seven years I had done intervals less than a dozen times annually, and some years probably less than five times.

One week “the right thing” involved a 30-kilometer run/hike one day and a 20 k  run/hike the next day. That was hard, but I planned in advance to head to the Engadin valley for the weekend so that I the spectacular scenery would entice me out the door on Sunday when my body was already tired.

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Enjoying some amazing trail running/hiking around Pontresina.

And maybe the hardest week was when “the right thing” had a 30 k run scheduled on a weekday. I woke up early, took the train to Baden, and ran all the way to the office. I have to admit I wasn’t a very effective worker that day.

But even though it was often hard, I knew what I had to do. Just follow the plan. The plan will get you where you want to go.

Training for a marathon was probably the easiest thing I did this fall.

***

The trauma (there, I said it) of the last month of my dissertation has almost blotted out the months that came before, work-wise. But looking back, I can piece together what they looked like.

I want to be clear that a lot of my problems were self-inflicted. I’m a perfectionist. I hate doing less than the best I could possibly do.

I also have a strong viewpoint that data should not go un-analyzed and un-reported. It’s not good for science if we leave something in a file drawer just because it didn’t turn out to be interesting. That means that someone else will repeat our experiment in the future. And if they also leave it in a file drawer because it turns out to not be interesting, then some unsuspecting third scientist will also decide to tackle it. And so on. You get the picture.

My natural tendency to overwork myself was at some points made worse by my supervisor. Florian is a great supervisor – I would highly recommend working in his lab, and the effusive thanks I eventually wrote in the acknowledgments section of my dissertation were not exaggerations. But he knows how to get the most out of all of us. And at this point, he has known me for four years. He probably knew that if he told me he didn’t think I could do something, that would make me try that much harder to get it done.

All of which is to say that in late August when I sat down with Florian to plan the final few months, I should have been confident that my dissertation would be fine. I had already published three chapters of it as papers, which is a great position to be in. If I had wanted to, I could have coasted in to the finish, writing up one more chapter and calling it a day. Nobody would have said my dissertation wasn’t adequate.

But neither Florian nor I were interested in that option. Instead we planned out three more chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion to the dissertation. I had the data already for all of those chapters, but I still had to analyze it and I still had to do the writing.  I had until mid-November to get all of that done.

And so I made an estimate of how long everything would take. Choosing and learning the appropriate geostatistical method to upscale my survey data: would that take two days, or two weeks? Better just schedule one.

“You can write a paper in a week,” Florian said. I didn’t feel like that was true, but sure, chapter four, let’s schedule a week for the writing.

Inevitably, things didn’t go according to plan. And I also had to apply for postdoc fellowships, too, an exhausting process during which I came up with a research proposal that didn’t even strongly relate to my dissertation. Charging ahead on both of these fronts required shifting between intellectual arenas in my brain.

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So here’s a plan I didn’t end up following, like, at all… in fact, the chapters aren’t even the ones that ended up in my dissertation!

Most days I came home from work exhausted, but through early fall, I was making progress. I submitted the fourth chapter to a journal two weeks before we had planned. Things weren’t going exactly as I had thought, but the parts going better than planned seemed to be making up for the areas where I was way behind.

***

In mid-October, with one month until my dissertation was due, I took the train to southeastern Switzerland on a Friday afternoon and got ready to race the next day. I had been tapering, which felt weird. I hadn’t done any competitions I felt strongly enough about to taper for since my only other marathon run, back in 2013 in France. (That one was on the road; I trained for it, but not according to any real plan.)

My friend Annie came down to race too, and was likewise stressed by work. She had been in the field all week, hardly ideal preparation. We went to bed early, and neither of us slept well. We made some overnight oats for breakfast and found a regional bus that would take us to Ilanz, where the race would start.

In the leadup to the race, a lot of people would ask how long I thought it would take. I had no idea what to answer. Five hours? Four hours? There was all that up and down. Plus, though it was clear that the race wouldn’t have much pavement, would the balance be dirt/gravel roads, or singletrack? How technical would the terrain be? This was clearly not a race where you could pick a pace or split and just try to consistently hit it.

Instead, I made a race plan based on heart rate. I wanted to start off easy on for the first few kilometers and then get into an easy but fast groove for the first ten or so kilometers, which looked mostly flat on the course profile. I set limits for the big climbs: don’t let your heart rate go above this. If you have to walk, walk. You’re in this for the long hall and you are not going to make yourself bonk. Downhills are one of my strengths, so I wanted to run every downhill as fast as I sustainably could.

Oh, and I planned to eat as many calories as I could stuff in my face.

I more or less followed this plan. My slow start meant that people poured past me in the opening kilometers (it was an individual-start marathon, weirdly), and I ended up going a little harder than I planned – but still easy enough that I don’t think it taxed me too much. My plan had probably been too conservative.

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First 10 k: whee, this is fun!

After that, my plan worked great. On the climbs that went for kilometer after kilometer, mostly on dirt roads but sometimes on singletrack, I kept up a steady effort hovering just around my anaerobic threshold. The downhills were a blast as I flew past people. Sometimes they would pass me again as I slowed to my steady pace on the uphills, but it paid off.

We hit the high point of the course around 30 k (20 miles) into the marathon, and there was an aid station at the top. One guy who had been running around me – sometimes ahead, sometime behind – staggered over to a picnic table and sat down heavily.

“Scheisse,” he groaned.

I ran through the aid station, stopping only for a few seconds to refill a water flask. I had quite a few kilometers of gradual to steep downhill to look forward to. I hadn’t completely wrecked myself on the uphill, and I started reeling people in. I was flying, catching runners whom I had told myself not to worry about as they went past me on the last climb.

It was pretty fun until a few kilometers to go. We had all been warned that there were three steep hills just before the finish, so to save something. The first one was a reality check after those nice kilometers of downhill, and it was longer than I had guessed, but not so bad.

The second one was short and very steep. I walked. Everyone walked.

The third one: very steep. It was terrible. I mentally cursed the race organizers. I came over what I thought was the top only to see that the hill went on. I felt like I was crawling. My swagger from a few kilometers ago was long gone. But at least from here it would only get easier towards the finish.

Down the other side, around a corner and… what the hell? Another steep hill. Like, really steep, find-something-to-grab-ahold-of steep. There were two retirees by the side of the trail. The runners ahead of me swore out loud this time, and the retirees laughed at them. At us. If I wasn’t so tired I would have fixed them an evil glare as I went by.

By the time I went down the fourth of the three hills, I wasn’t even fast on the downhills anymore. There was a very, very gradual climb to the finish line, back on pavement, which should have felt fast and easy. Instead, I struggled to maintain a jog. But I got to the finish, clocking a time just under five hours.

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The organizers set up this sweet panorama so you could mug and get a cool finish line photo as if you were running on the trail, but I was so beat I didn’t even notice. Whoops!

The sun was shining as we congratulated each other and began to refuel the calories and salt we had lost. Dry clothes felt so good. Sitting down felt good. I was proud of myself – my result was not particularly great, but I had worked hard and followed a plan and, I believe, done the best race I could do on that day. I was just over a year out from a major injury, and another major victory is that I hadn’t hurt myself again. That functional strength had worked: even when I was so tired, my feet nimbly navigated the trails and my ankles stayed stable.

Most importantly, I had a ton of fun and I was already dreaming of what long trail or mountain race to sign up for next year.

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With Annie at the finish: we did it! (Photo: some older lady walking by, who we accosted…)

***

The race hadn’t been easy.

If I’m thinking about the events that cap off my grueling goals, I think my PhD defense – scheduled for January – will be much easier. I like giving presentations, and I am excited to tell my colleagues, friends, and family about what I’ve been working on. I’m sure I will be nervous, but mostly, it will be fun. I’ve been imagining that day for months and months and months.

Compared to a mountainous trail marathon? PhD defense = easy.

But if I’m thinking about the paths that lead to those days, the running was much easier. The day after my marathon, I went for a little walk in the mountains with Annie, because we were already there and the views and mountain feeling are too good to miss even when your legs are jelly.

On Monday I went back to the office, and I didn’t take another day away from my dissertation until I handed it in just over a month later.

Again: that bad, bad situation of overwork, and everything it led to, was somewhat self-inflicted. I could have told myself, look, this is crazy. You don’t even really need six chapters. Florian, I can’t do chapter six. I’m going to take the weekend off and unscramble my brain and work on giving you a great five-chapter dissertation.

But that is not what I did. I wrote for hours at a time. I revised. I formatted. I cried. I ate a lot of cookies (a lot!). I asked colleagues to read terrible drafts. I rarely went running. I kept writing. I slept badly. I complained. I became a bad friend and officemate. I resented Florian. I cried more.

What I lacked was confidence. I was trying to follow the plan we had made, but it wasn’t working. I didn’t have that feeling that if I just did what was on the schedule, everything would be fine. Most days, it felt like there was no way in the world that everything would be fine.

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You think you’re doing okay and then you start correcting your bibliography and it looks like this…

Maybe partly because my training was over and I was rarely exercising, I totally lost perspective. My dissertation seemed like the only thing in my life, in some ways, and it felt like a slow-rolling disaster. Every little setback seemed like the end of the world.

But, on November 19, I handed Florian a printed version of my dissertation.

He made some minor corrections and told me it was very nice. This was classic: he had previously told me that he expected he would make a lot of corrections and there was no way I’d be able to turn it in the next day. But by saying that, he had ensured that I would ruin myself attempting to give him a nearly perfect dissertation.

I made those small corrections, and on November 20, I submitted my dissertation to the University of Zurich. It was anticlimactic. I uploaded a PDF to the online interface, and then walked some paperwork over to the Faculty of Science. The woman at the desk who accepted my registration for a PhD defense didn’t even say congratulations. Nobody had come along to give me a high five or hug, because I hadn’t asked them to.

Instead I went home and, much like after my marathon, lay on the couch. I sank into the leather cushions and felt like maybe I could stay there forever.

***

Recovery began the next day.

If there’s anything that being an athlete has taught me, it is that recovery is important. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, and it’s also something that I didn’t really value for much of my “serious” athletic career. I was interested in too many other things – when I didn’t have to train, I filled that time with something else. I’m pretty sure I would have been a lot faster if I had just taken a nap.

But now I’m some combination of older and wiser, and my body is older, and my brain is older. They need recovery and I fully believe in its value.

I took almost a week off from work, and now I’m back. I’m able to enjoy going to the office again. I’m able to get excited about reading papers, another thing that I almost completely neglected while I was writing. Many of the projects I am working on now, in this time between my dissertation and defense, are collaborative, and that feels great to get back to, too.

And in the back of my mind I can say that no matter what else happened in 2018 – the political, the personal, the stupid stress I put myself under – I accomplished my two big goals. That feels pretty good.

autumn in the Engadin.

I love shoulder season in the mountains.

Autumn is incredibly beautiful, but for a lot of alpine resorts, it is the slow time of year. Business owners take a break before the winter tourism rush begins. Kids are back in school, so the summer vacationers are long gone. Maybe it rains a lot. In many senses it’s an in-between.

And yet: the mountains are still there. The days where it doesn’t rain can bring the most glorious blue skies. The plants start turning pretty colors, mostly reds and yellows. The highest peaks start accumulating snow. The weather is cooler, and as a person who suffers greatly in even moderate heat, that sure brings a smile to my face. It allows me to play outside for longer.

Fall is a great time for the budget traveler, because it’s not high season (except if you’re headed to leaf-peeping land….) and rates are reduced. Last year I had a great getaway to the Austrian Alps and stayed in a hotel I would never be able to afford in the winter season. I had the elaborate sauna suite all to myself one rainy afternoon.

This year, we headed to the Engadin valley in southeastern Switzerland.

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Upper Engadin. Cross-country skiers are probably most familiar with it as the location for the Engadin Skimarathon, which I’ve done just once despite being in Switzerland for several winters. We also had a nice ski weekend in Zuoz at the end of this winter. The Lower Engadin is one of my very favorite places, full of small villages with Romantsch writing on them, surrounded by big mountains: so quiet and peaceful. But I really had only been to the Upper Engadin once in summer, and it was a day of frustration while I was mentally processing some work-related problems.

It being shoulder season, we found a great AirBnB in St. Moritz, which again, is more posh that I would usually choose; nearby Samedan, Celerina, or Pontresina are more affordable.

The day before we left, I ran into my colleague Chris, a group leader in my research institute, on the train on the way to work. He had just returned from Val Roseg, a valley in the Engadin where he and another colleague, Amael, study biodiversity and ecosystem function. (You can find out about their research on this valley – with a big glacier at the top! – here, and watch a video they made about it here.) Chris was raving not just about a cool scientific result they had uncovered, but how beautiful it was.

“We’re going there this weekend!” I said excitedly.

We discussed a little, and when I said we were staying in St. Moritz, Chris looked at me like I had lost my mind. But, shoulder season!

Anyway, I arrived on Friday evening and picked up some locally-made mushroom pasta, wild mushrooms, bacon, and alp cheese, and whipped up a dinner as the alpenglow faded. I had big plans for the weekend: part of the reason we had come was that as part of my marathon training, I had two big runs on the schedule. 30 km on Saturday, and 20 km on Sunday, each with some elevation. It seemed a bit intimidating, and I doubted I would get out the door for Sunday’s effort if I was just doing it in my backyard. Hence, I picked some spectacular scenery to get motivated.

But where to go? There are so many trails, valleys, mountains, ridges, bowls… too much to explore in a single weekend. I pored over the Alps Insight trail running site looking at routes, and then pored some more over online topo maps looking at more routes.

On Saturday, we woke up, made breakfast, and then ran over to Pontresina, a rolling six-kilometer stretch along the lake and through pine forests. The trail was cushy under my feet and I marveled, “wouldn’t it be great to be able to run on trails like this every day?”

After going through Pontresina, we hit the big hills, climbing about 700 meters in five kilometers. I didn’t even try to run – I knew what we still had ahead, and just kept to a steady hiking grind.

But then we were above treeline near Alp Languard, and everything was spectacular. We were looking more or less straight across the valley into Val Roseg, where my colleagues had been doing fieldwork just a few days prior. The glacier hung, shimmering white, on the mountains in the back. Looking to the other side, we were surrounded by the alpine meadow playground we would inhabit for the next few hours.

Finally above treeline!

We climbed along a small ridge called Paradis – fitting. It was more gradual and a bit of a rest after all the steep climbing. We passed a small hut before descending some hard-won meters into a gorgeous bowl just below Lej (Lake) Languard. For much of the climb we hadn’t seen other hikers, but here people converged on this small alpine lake perched on the side of the mountains. I couldn’t capture its turquoise blue color, but believe me, it was special.

We descended the trail you can see snaking along the left to reach a wide bowl, before climbing back up to Lej Languard. This part of the trail is a runner’s dream.

The route was like a series of step: up to the lake, pause. Up a headwall to another plateau with tiny lakes, pause. We finally hit a traversing trail that cut below some big cliffs near the tops of the mountains. I ran off an extra kilometer or so to a pass, Fuorcla Pischa, just to see what was on the other side. It was a huge, rocky, open bowl with several more lakes, and in this direction, not a ski lift to be seen. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but it was the wrong direction.

Instead, we traversed back to the northwest, finally on gradual terrain through the scree, and spectacular view ahead of us. After a while we hit the spur up to the top of Piz Languard, which we ignored – the route had 1500 meters of climbing already, and I didn’t feel the need to add a few hundred more. We dropped down a bit before joining the “Steinbock-weg”, and a hard truth. I had looked forward to this section of the run because it was gradual, high-altitude traversing – the hard work of climbing was done, I was tired, and I expected to be able to cruise. But the Steinbock-weg was basically navigating boulderfields. I had to take care and go slower than expected. The last thing I wanted was to reinsure my ankle. That was okay, but not what I had pictured in my mind’s eye.

The last major point on our route was Chamanna Segantini, a hut where we could have stopped for something to eat and drink. But instead we descended a fun trail and than ran on beautiful, easy dirt paths around the side of the mountain a few kilometers, before taking another steep drop down all the way back to Pontresina.

30 k and more than 4 1/2 hours, and I had one workout done for the weekend. I spent the afternoon lying on the couch. It was great.

For day two, I knew I couldn’t handle so much climbing again, so I reluctantly left the Alps Insight website behind and picked an easier route. On Sunday morning I took the bus west and up the valley past a series of lakes toward Maloja. It was such an incredibly beautiful morning, it almost broke my heart to think that soon I will have to leave this country and find a job somewhere else.

I started by run by going along the south shore of the Sils lake; the path over big rocks and under the trees reminded me of running on a lake shore in New England.

But after a few kilometers I turned uphill, the only big-is climb of the day taking me over a headwall and into the Val Fedoz valley. Luckily, the climb was along a dirt road, so I didn’t have to think too much about where to put my feet – I was mentally tired from the previous day. I just tried to keep my heart rate from going too high, and savored the view out over the lake of Sils.

The view was stunning, and the valley nearly empty. The singletrack was faint and in places I lost its thread, and would have to pause to find it again. The stream meandered through the valley bottom until I got to one steep drop, where it had carved its way through with a waterfall. There, as I was climbing up through the boulders on one side, I met two hunters packing out their kill. After finally identifying that French was our only language of common currency, we discussed how beautiful it was, and that winter would come soon.

At the top of the waterfall, I climbed on top of a huge rock, stopped my watch, and ate a snack. The glacier at the end of the valley – there’s one in every valley here, it seems – beckoned, but I didn’t have the time, or extra kilometers, to explore further on the ever-fainter trail. Instead, I turned around and headed back down the valley on the other side of the stream.

Eventually I dropped down into Sils, where I caught a bus back.

Back to the St. Moritz train station, then back to Zurich, then back to home, and then, the next day, back to work.

My dissertation is due in a month now, and I have been working like crazy to get it done. Every day I feel completely mentally exhausted. Maybe hiking and running 50 k in two days doesn’t sound relaxing, but it was: relative to mental work, physical work is not so taxing.

Taking in the color and the sun, the mountain air and the mountains, was the best way I could possibly have spent a weekend, and I was thrilled to finally get to the Upper Engadin and explore with shoes instead of skis.

There were seemingly infinite valleys and mountains to explore, and I’d love to get back one day. Two friends are there right now, and they have been ensconced for a week or so, having a different incredible adventure every day. I’m jealous, but it’s not my time for that. Hopefully, in the future I’ll have more chances, because the mountains are there waiting.

Seven More Routes on my Swiss Hiking/Trail Running Guide

I haven’t been blogging this summer, and for that I’m sorry. It has been busy, but when hasn’t it been?

Anyway, maybe I didn’t write at the time, but you can still take advantage of all the adventures I’ve been having. I added seven new routes to my Swiss Hiking & Trail Running Guide, based on the favorite spots I went this year so far. I still have a few long runs planned for the fall, so the guide could see one more update before I leave the country after defending my PhD this winter.

Click here for the guide.

The new routes:

Schwyzer Hohenweg from Brunni to Einsiedeln:

Innerthal to Ziegelbrucke over Schwarzenegg and Scheidegg:

Maderanertal Höhenweg:

Glattgrat on the way from Klewenalp to Urnersee:

Glattalpsee, from Bisisthal to Braunwald:

Glaubenberg to Glaubenbielen and into the Marienthal (pic by Annie Chalifour):

Trans Swiss Trail from Lugano to Morcote (pic by Steve Towler):

Bye for now, Holmenkollen.

A few weeks ago I headed to Oslo for the last* World Cup biathlon races of the season. I had some serious flip-flopping about whether to go or not: FasterSkier didn’t cover the trip financially, but I wanted to go see the races, I wanted to get away from PhD work for a few days, I wanted to go ski in the Nordmarka, I wanted to have one last hurrah. But it was expensive! Norway always is, especially last-minute. After lots of soul-searching and budget-considering, I bought a plane ticket, got accredited for the races, and arranged an AirBnB.

As soon as I arrived, I knew I had made the right call. In mid March the days are already starting to get longer in Scandinavia. I arrived in the late afternoon and went for a jog in the evening light, skidding around on icy paths and sidewalks.

Then I made dinner in the absolutely perfect apartment we had rented. I had worked on some manuscript revisions on my flight, so I sent those off. I felt like leaving work early on a Thursday hadn’t made me much less productive. As a reward, I pulled up the extremely extensive trail map of the forests around Oslo (the marka) and got ready to head off skiing the next morning.

It turned out to be the perfect trip. The skiing was the best I’ve ever had in Oslo in all of my visits there – I was remembering a few years before when I went skiing with my Dartmouth friends Hannah and Knut. Knut had been living in Oslo for a few years at that point, and he picked out a loop for us in the marka. But it was so slushy and warm that we were dodging dirt and rocks, ice sheets above streams of snowmelt the whole way.

Quite a contrast. This year, it was quite cold overnight (and in the mornings!), but getting balmy by midday, true spring skiing but with a phenomenal base of snow. On my last ski, I was passed by a guy decked out in University of Denver gear. He saw that I was wearing an old Dartmouth Ski Team jacket and stopped to chat. I gushed about how beautiful the skiing was.

“I grew up in Oslo, and this is the best winter we have had in 15 years!” he exclaimed.

It was truly great. That first ski that I went on, I meandered for 35 kilometers, over hills (a lot of them: nearly 1000 meters of climbing on the day, Strava told me, explaining why I felt way more worn out than 35 k would suggest…), across lakes, through the woods, and past huts serving hot chocolate and waffles (I didn’t stop).

I could not have been happier. I was glowing.

“Why aren’t you looking for a postdoc here?” People kept asking, seeing just how happy I was and as I raved on and on about how you could ski for 100 km or far farther than that, if you wanted to, without ever doubling back. And all this, accessible from the metro line!

It was a good question, but also highlighted why I was there. At this time next year, I will be done with my PhD, and I don’t know where I will be but hopefully I will be starting a postdoc. The chances are pretty high that I will be back in North America. Oslo won’t be just a quick hop across Europe like it is from my current home in Zurich. I won’t be able to make a last-minute decision to fly over and watch the World Cup. Probably, I won’t be going to any World Cups at all.

So I enjoyed watching the races. The weather couldn’t have been better – instead of the fog that sometimes characterizes the Oslo fjord, it was spectacularly sunny every day. I got sunburned, and for one of the first times ever while reporting at a race, my hands didn’t even get cold operating the voice recorder app on my phone. The races almost didn’t seem long enough: standing out on the side of the trail, I could have just stayed there basking in the sun and the atmosphere for hours. When the racers were heading for the finish line and I had to get back to interview them, it was only grudgingly that I headed in that direction. In a way there didn’t even need to be a race. I would have sat outside anyway.

I enjoyed the culture, jogging through the Vigeland Park sculpture garden and visiting the phenomenal Fram Museum with Susan. Steve and I lit a fire in the wood stove in our AirBnB and cooked salmon for dinner, feeling cozy.

And I enjoyed the skiing.

On Sunday, before the last races of the weekend, I headed off on a ski – as always. Because I look more or less like I know how to ski, I can usually cruise around the race trails during training if I have my media accreditation and nobody looks at it too closely. So I headed out of the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere but trying not to attract any attention, and then off onto the bigger loop – the trails used in the cross-country World Cup but too long for biathlon, the ones that wouldn’t deliver skiers back to the shooting range fast enough.

I remembered what it was like there in 2011, my very first reporting trip with FasterSkier. It was cross-country World Championships, and we got a bib that allowed us to ski around the race course before the 50 k. I think at least two, if not three, of us took turns with that bib so we could each head out on the trails.

That morning, I skied two laps (which was maybe 8 k or maybe 13 k? I’m not sure…) and the 100,000+ people were already out there ready to cheer, having been camping in the woods around the trails and already drinking and grilling sausages. I had been to Norway before, for the 1994 Olympics when I was a little kid and then with two Ford Sayre trips. But to ski the trails before that race exponentially altered my understanding of our sport even above having been a spectator at the Holmenkollen in 2003 and 2006. Two laps of the loop used for that 50 k are no joke on the legs, but the adrenaline of all the half-drunk and fully-drunk fans screaming for me as if I was an athlete and the race had already started, rather than being two hours away, pushed me harder and harder, barely noticing the lactate building up.

This time, as I skied up the huge climbs of the Holmenkollen race trail loop and headed for the marka, they were quiet. I found myself crying. For seven years I had been going to World Cup races, and this pre-work ski was an integral part of my ritual. We don’t do this job for the money, and the chance to get out on ski trails in new and special places is always one of the best parts of a trip for me.

Oslo hadn’t been a new place in a while, but it will always be one of the most special places.

When would I next ski on these amazing trails, with all their lore and all of my own memories of famous battles which unfolded there?

When next would I be able to turn to the right as I climbed, and look out over the city and its fjord?

I kept thinking: this the the last time I’ll ever go for a ski before a race like this. I’ve done this so many times, and this is it. Not only it for skiing before the Holmenkollen races, but who knows when I’ll next be in Oslo, period.

The fact that it was such a perfect day didn’t help make that any easier to take.

Nor did the fact that when I got back to the stadium, I would be covering the last World Cup race ever for Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke of the United States, and Julia Ransom of Canada. The retirement parties planned somehow made my own upcoming life changes come even more to the fore.

But, of course, that is being melodramatic and overblown. Oslo isn’t going anywhere. Probably I won’t be back there reporting for FasterSkier. But that’s not to say that I can’t go back, during the World Cup or any other time. I have my whole life ahead of me. In theory, I will have a job and some income. (Ha!! That’s delusional!! I’m a scientist!!) I can come back whenever I want, if the pull is so strong. It’s not my last time on these trails.

I kept repeating this to myself and by the time I peeled off of the cross-country race loop and headed into the marka, the tears had stopped.

On the slightly-less-manicured trails, I passed dozens, probably hundreds, of skiers. Some in trendy Scandinavian ski clothes. Others retirees, on old skis, moving slowly. Families with kids, with the parents carrying backpacks for a picnic later. Guys pulling babies and toddlers behind them in pulks. People my age who weren’t out there because they were great skiers, but because it was a beautiful day, skiing around in old sweaters and knit headbands. Women of all ages, some wearing lipstick, several with dogs bounding beside them or ahead of them or, in the case of one lady with a dachshund, trailing behind her working very hard but utterly unable to keep up on his stubby little legs.

The whole world was out skiing because, in the end, it was a perfect day. And I was out with them.

I didn’t forget that in a way this was the end of everything, but the acute grief faded. I enjoyed the ski without thinking constantly about what it meant. I basked.

I skied the longest loop I could manage until it was almost time for the races, then snuck back into the stadium past some course marshals who just nodded instead of checking my credential. I took off my skis and stood for a moment, looking first at the ski jump just across the bowl, then at the grandstands full of fans. The television cameras were panning back and forth. The commentators in their little booths were already commentating. The stadium announcer was pumping up the crowd. A few athletes were starting to do pickups, speeds, or threshold work as they skied out of the stadium, the final pieces of their pre-race warmups. Photographers were starting to filter out onto the trails and their special priority positions hauling their gigantic zoom lenses, bigger than my head.

I took several deep breaths. I smiled.

I told myself, this will still be here.

And I went into the media center to change into dry clothes, grab something to eat, and then get out there and do some reporting.

 

*Oslo was last World Cup of the season that wasn’t in Russia, which is currently not in compliance with the WADA Code. A number of teams and athletes skipped the Russia finals.

Seiser Alm and perfect ski vacations.

I’m seriously late with this trip report, but no matter. I want to tell you about a trip I took back in early February.

Earlier this winter, when I realized that I was not going to the Olympics and thus had more time to play with in Europe (ha! only kind of! I need to finish my dissertation!), I asked on Facebook: what were my friends’ favorite places to cross-country ski in Europe? Places that I shouldn’t leave next fall without having visited?

Yes, I am in that mode. I anticipate defending my PhD in September, which means that I am looking for postdoc positions and in all likelihood I’ll be headed back to North America. It’s not that I’ll never take another ski trip in Europe, of course, but doing so will be a lot harder once I’m based on a different continent. There is such a world to explore here, and I’ve had so many great trips and experiences – many of which you can read about on this blog, like this, this, or this – but there are so many places that I still want to go, and not enough time to visit them.

So I wanted some help narrowing down my list.

A suggestion from multiple people was Seiser Alm (or Alpe di Siusi) in Italy. I had known for a while that this would be a nice place to go, as evidenced by the fact that oh so many national ski teams do training camps there: it is a favorite of the Americans, the Canadians, the Swedes, the Norwegians, and the Finns, among others. Marit Bjørgen and Charlotte Kalla each decided to ditch their teams’ pre-Olympic training camps and train in Seiser Alm instead. (And that turned out to work out well for both of them, as each came home with individual gold medals.)

Seiser Alm isn’t all that hard to get to, if you’re coming from afar. Go to Milan, take a train to Bolzano, and then it’s a quick bus ride to Seis/Siusi, the town below the plateau. You can stay there and take the cablecar or bus up to the plateau of Seiser Alm/Alpe di Siusi every day to ski, or you can travel up the big hill and stay up there, for example in the village of Compatsch, as we did.

Pro tip, do some work on the train.

The reason I hadn’t been to Seiser Alm so far, however, is that if you are coming from the north it is not so convenient. With a car, it’s probably not that bad. I don’t have a car, however, so the trip was a long combination of train and bus connections. Crossing the Alps is never a simple feat and I took the train into Austria, then another train to the top of a pass, then a another train down the other side of the pass into Italy, then a bus from Brixen/Bressanone to Seis/Siusi*, then the cablecar. I had wanted to take this trip before, but the logistics put me off. From Zurich it’s literally as fast to fly to Oslo and then take a train to Lillehammer, as it is to take public transportation to Seiser Alm!

I’m bad at writing blog posts, because my introductions are always longer than the meat of the post. But here, I’ll finally get to the point: I took a few days off work and made it a long weekend, reserved a hotel, and traveled to Seiser Alm. I went with my boyfriend, who had never cross-country skied before. I was hoping he wouldn’t hate it, and figured that if I wanted him to love my sport, I might as well introduce him to it in the awesomest place I could think of.

Because of all those logistics, we arrived in the mid afternoon. After checking in I immediately wanted to go for a ski before the sun went down, so I grabbed my skate skis and headed out. It had snowed the day before and the grooming was imperfect for skating (classic would have been better, but I didn’t want to take the time to pick and apply kickwax, I just wanted to get out there).

But it was beautiful. Everything I had dreamed of. And I had plenty of time to appreciate the scenery, because skating through the powder up some big climbs at 1800 meters of elevation (around 6,000 feet, and higher once I went up some of those big climbs) is really hard. I just skied until the sun was setting, maybe an hour and a half, but I was already pooped.

Luckily, I could refuel. Our hotel was delightful. As is probably the case for most or all of the hotels in Compatsch, half-board is the default: breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate. That’s because Compatsch is a tiny, tiny village at the top of the cablecar. There are a handful of hotels, some of them fairly big, but maybe only two or three bars/pizza places that aren’t associated with hotels. There’s just not many other places you are going to eat, and the hotels aren’t really going to get dinner guests who aren’t staying up there because the cablecar stops running at 6 p.m. and you aren’t allowed to drive up to the plateau unless you are staying there (which makes the plateau very nice and quiet!). So, half-board makes sense for everyone.

The dinner was superb, including a great salad bar, some handmade pasta (of course), and a *dessert buffet*. I generally try not to eat dessert, but this was too much to resist. When I saw the 70-something-year-old German guy from Hamburg who was sitting at the table next to us get up and choose a second dessert, I decided that’s what I should do too.

Yes, even if you don’t count the phenomenal skiing, I was spoiled on this trip.

The next day we enjoyed a similarly great breakfast, and then set out to ski. That first afternoon I had remembered how exhausting it is to skate at altitude. I haven’t been doing a lot of skating this year because I’m still recovering from an ankle injury that has really affected my mechanics, so I had somehow forgotten that fact.

So we stuck to classic skiing. After the moody weather of our arrival day, it dawned bright and sunny. I slapped some blue hardwax on my skis, we rented some skis for my boyfriend, and set out.

Same view, this time with A+ grooming.

I can hardly explain how spectacular it was. I tried to be a good teacher but was distracted by the scenery, the perfect conditions, the feeling of sun on my skin (we hadn’t been getting a lot of that in Zurich). Every few minutes I would look around and grin, and sometimes spread my arms like, can you believe this?

From Compatsch, it is a few kilometers up to Ritsch, which is the true center of the trail system. From there, there’s a few kilometers of easy, rolling trails (and actually even a one-kilometer “practice loop” which is totally flat). We started there, but continued around the 12-km “Hartl” loop that goes far out the plateau to the northeast, and at its farthest point loops around alpine meadows with overlooks across a valley into Val Gardena.

I live in Switzerland, so I’m used to mountains, but the mountains in the Dolomites are totally different. They are made of, well, dolomite, and they are sharp and craggy. I think this is one thing that made me so awed by the scenery: it was just so different than what I was used to seeing. Take my wonder at the Swiss Alps, that feeling I have in Lenzerheide or Gantrisch or even Einsiedeln, and increase it by an order of magnitude, because these mountains are simply not what I usually look at. And throughout the day, the sun plays across them. Different parts are lit up or shaded. Clouds and snow squalls play around the spires. Every time you look is a little different.

My boyfriend survived the loop and we stopped in Ritsch for lunch at the hotel/restaurant there, devouring some excellent local-style dumplings. One was made with cheese, another spinach, a third one beets.

After replenishing, we parted ways and I skied down into Saltria and cruised around the 6 k loop there. Now is a good time to explain Seiser Alm. It is really just a huge alpine plateau, with hills and meadows, and sharp mountains on several sides. On every edge of this plateau are ski lifts and tiny resorts with a one or two hotels each; many of these areas are accessible from one another, albeit not by steep ski runs. Sometimes the cross-country ski trail would be running parallel to an alpine run, on a gradual downhill across the plateau. Even just in a tuck, on my cross-country skis I would be going faster than the downhill skiers on their heavy equipment, who couldn’t get up a head of momentum on such a gradual hill.

Saltria is another medium-sized village, a bit like Compatsch, but nestled down in a mini-valley a bit instead of totally perched on a plateau. To get down to Saltria, I dropped almost 200 meters of elevation in about two twisty kilometers, which was a lot of fun. I then cruised around the medium loop there, which was comparatively deserted and quite lovely, going up this mini-valley along a babbling river/stream instead of offering the bam-bam-bam of the plateau’s mountain views. And then I had to climb back up those 200 meters in two kilometers, which was slightly less fun.

Again, I was exhausted. But as I waited hungrily for dinner time, I appreciated the view, again. Perhaps some of the most special views of the spiky mountains are in the morning and the evening. As the light gradually disappeared, the spires were framed in different colors, just there right outside our window. The beauty and the quiet are so striking. Unless you have a really good reason to do a budget trip, it’s worth spending a little bit more money to stay up on the plateau and experience the mountains through whole days and nights instead of just enjoying the views from your skis during the day.

We had another great dinner, after which we sat in the hotel’s lounge area with a couple of beers. We were joined by two German couples, and the two men in the group began playing music on a guitar and singing. They were great, and played songs from several cultures and in several languages. The experience of this type of hotel, where everyone sticks around for meals, is a very different atmosphere from the impersonal settings of bigger resorts, and it was a lot of fun.

The next day was again beautiful and sunny, and we skied the “Panorama” loop, in total about a 20 km round trip from Compatsch, with a huge elevation gain.

Suddenly you find yourself skiing past the top of a ski lift, an experience you rarely get in the U.S. or Canada! The way that nordic and alpine skiing are integrated into the same space in Seiser Alm (and a few other places I have been, like Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees) is really neat. Groomed winter hiking/snowshoe trails are also embedded into this matrix, so up on the plateau at nearly any point you can look around and see people doing three or four different kinds of recreation. I wish more resorts would do this, instead of making these all totally separate activities, each with their own “area”. It’s great to be able to use the same space, and simply provides more terrain for everyone – why is that not a win/win!?

The panorama loop indeed offers spectacular panoramas. Again I was on blue hardwax, cruising around perfect classic tracks. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Perhaps because we set out directly after breakfast, we encountered relatively few other skiers, particularly in the outer parts of the loop.

The loop was so great that I went back the next day, when I skied as much as I could – the Panorama loop, the other loop overlooking Val Gardena – before reluctantly putting my skis back in their bag, getting on the cablecar, and starting the long journey home to Zurich. I had skied about 30 km each day, on average, and I was satisfied, exhausted, sore – but wished I could have just stayed and kept skiing.

I know exactly why so many people, from the world’s best skiers to that old guy from Hamburg who told us that he comes to Seiser Alm for two weeks every year, want to go there. I can’t wait to go back, even though it might be five or ten or twenty years before I have another chance.

Not only the snow, but that handmade pasta and an excellent glass of wine are waiting for me when I do.

*Why does everything have two names? Südtirol is an interesting region with an interesting history. It’s currently an “autonomous province” of Italy, but more than half the people living there speak German as their first language. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia explanation of the region’s history, and a link to a 1927 article in Foreign Affairs stating that “the German South-Tyrol and its people are purely German. Never in history has the Brenner been the frontier of Italy… Italy nevertheless has an international obligation with regard to the rights of the German population of South-Tyrol.” That article is obviously not completely unbiased, but it’s quite interesting to read.

A Missive From 3+ Years Covering the Russian Doping Scandal

FasterSkier’s Alex Kochon, Nat Herz, and the author (Chelsea Little) at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes of those Games. Looking back at our coverage of the 2014 Olympics, I’m very proud of the work we did. But I’m not too proud to say that while we thought we had a realistic understanding of international sports governance, we were still naive to its incredible inertia.

The following is an editorial I wrote for FasterSkier.com. As always, head there for more news and reporting about cross-country skiing and biathlon.

***

Last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) cleared 28 Russian athletes of doping charges. Many people seemed shocked by this development.

The athletes had been disqualified from the 2014 Games by an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Commission. This was after more than 18 months of buildup in which the world learnt of systematic manipulation of the anti-doping process by the Russian state security apparatus at those Olympics.

I was both shocked, and not shocked. When all these athletes had been disqualified by the IOC and handed lifetime bans from Olympic competition, I knew in my heart of hearts that it would be undone (I’ll explain why below). But I hadn’t, somehow, put any thought into how exactly that would come to pass. So on one level, I was surprised, even if on another level I wasn’t.

When the news broke, I had written a profanity-laced all-caps message on our company Slack channel. On Twitter, I wrote, “I am so tired. That means that they have won.” That’s about all I could muster.

“I’m sure you are extremely disappointed by the CAS ruling,” one member of my extended family wrote in an email, knowing how many nights and weekends I had spent covering this story, how many hours and days of my personal life I had erased to chase it, because doing so does not pay the bills if you work for a cross-country ski website in America.

And I was disappointed.

I had thought that those nights and weekends would help make a better sporting world, help bring cheating to light, help hold the powers that be in sport accountable and call on them to do a little better.

But it felt like all that work had accomplished nothing, not changed a single thing to make nordic sports more fair.

I can only imagine how the athletes felt. The ones who found out that they would not be receiving medals after all, medals that they felt had been stolen from them by cheaters, medals that they had been slated to finally receive but now would never see.

I can only imagine.

More than anything, I was disappointed because I didn’t understand. I’m an analyst. No analysis I could do would explain to me just what had happened because CAS did not release a reasoned argument for their decision, which, as USADA General Cousel Bill Bock pointed out, is ludicrous. So at the moment we don’t know why these athletes were cleared; we only have speculation and hearsay.

But I had read previous CAS decisions, including the one partially upholding cross-country skier Alexander Legkov’s provisional suspension by the International Ski Federation.

In that decision, an arbitration panel wrote that they trusted the statements of whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov and investigator Richard McLaren.

That testimony that is widely speculated to have been found untrustworthy by the arbitration panel which more recently cleared the athletes.

There is a difference between provisional suspensions and rule violations, and maybe that’s the root cause (or maybe it’s not; one day we will find out).

But if two different arbitration panels can come to two completely different conclusions about whether evidence is trustworthy, then what is the point of a “high court” of arbitration? That’s disappointing.

On the other hand, maybe the new panel did believe that the whistleblower testimony was true, but that witness statements alone are not enough to prove a doping violation. We’ll set aside for a moment all the forensic evidence [see footnote 1].

If that’s the case, it’s even more disappointing. It means that all of the rhetoric over the last few years about putting more resources into investigations will not actually result in cleaner sport, unless there is a positive test or the presence of drugs or medical equipment (see: Austrian skier Wurm, Russian skier Pankratov).

It would mean that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s new “secure digital platform” for whistleblowing — and statements by athletes and doctors and team staff — are all useless to anti-doping unless they are followed by physical evidence of prohibited substances or methods.

But we don’t know the panel’s reasoning. This is all just speculation.

I was tired and disappointed because my job as a journalist is to take complicated things, and make them make sense to our readers.

Here, there was nothing to work with. There was nothing to explain.

Or was there?

Here’s my analysis.

Armchair commentators have said that someone at CAS must have been paid off. Olympic observers have noted that while Russia appealed the choice or arbitrators by the IOC, the IOC apparently did not appeal Russia’s choice. So maybe the panel really was biased. That’s one storyline.

A second suggested storyline is that the IOC set up the cases to fail, so that it would look like they tried to do something heroic, but in the end nothing would change.

To some extent, that is absolutely the case. Lifetime bans for doping have been attempted by the IOC before. Every time, they have been overturned. There was a zero percent chance it would work this time, either.

Did the IOC go further than that in “set up to fail”? Both storylines may be true. Neither may be true. But each of these storylines is far too myopic in their attempts to explain what happened with this CAS decision.

The reason that, in my heart of hearts, I knew that things would turn out just fine for most of these seemingly disqualified athletes, is that far more than CAS is broken [2].

Broken would imply that at some point the system worked. When was that, again?

This scandal has been going on for years. And in both it and other, non-Russia-related doping scandals, organizations have dragged their feet at every turn. There is no political will to keep sport clean. Ensuring clean sport would be hard. Nobody wants to do hard work. Universally, these organizations just want to run sporting events and for fans to be happy.

“We need to stop pretending sport is clean,” International Ski Federation (FIS) President Gian Franco Kasper [3] famously told New York Times reporter Rebecca Ruiz. “It’s a noble principle, but in practice? It’s entertainment. It’s drama.”

People were mad when Kasper said this, but it was an especially revealing comment. Maybe it is a testament to our optimism that we quickly moved on, focusing on how we would try to “solve” the problem of doping.

There have been individuals and groups who have worked passionately to uncover the truth, and done an admirable job. Beckie Scott at WADA [4] is one who comes to mind. But their work is always prevented from reaching its logical conclusion.

Let’s first look at the IOC, which has deservedly gotten a bad rap for dragging its investigations out for as long as seems humanly possible.

The IOC has certainly not put the resources or good-faith effort into looking under every stone, or doing so quickly. That’s how we got the first Sochi disqualifications – like Legkov’s – being announced in November of 2017. Most of the criticism leveled at the organization on this front is absolutely justified.

In all the time between May 2016, when the Sochi scandal was first broken by the New York Times, and November 2017, the IOC did very little. The decision banning Legkov relied mostly on the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report.

The IOC Commission asked new experts to revisit the issues of scratches on sample bottles and salt content of urine samples. Basically, they repeated a lot of work which had already been done, expanding it to a larger number of samples but taking longer to do so by insisting on using different experts, who nonetheless came to the same conclusions.

For Legkov, all of this resulted in the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report: that Legkov’s sample bottle from after the 50 k, which he had won, showed signs of being tampered with.

Sure, the IOC Commission got testimony from Rodchenkov. But that only at the last minute, perhaps because they were publicly shamed when it was revealed that they hadn’t contacted him.

It’s fair to criticize the IOC for its anemic investigation, but this is not just an IOC problem, just like the disqualifications being overturned is not really a CAS problem.

Look further. Since the McLaren Report, few other governing bodies have been doing better.

78 anti-doping samples belonging to biathletes are referred to in the McLaren Report. The International Biathlon Union (IBU) has not suspended any of the 38 athletes, that we are aware of, other than those who were suspended by the IOC. In fact, they have explicitly said that they would not investigate 22 of those 38.

“We like to play coy, like the cat wagging its tail when the mouse runs in front,” IBU Vice President for Medical Issues Jim Carrabre told me back at the 2014 Olympics, in an interview that led to the IBU’s media chief calling me into his office at the press center and dressing me down for talking about things that he would rather journalists didn’t ask his organization’s board members.

“It goes by once or twice, and then the third time it gets bitten,” Carrabre said at the time.

He was referring to blood profiles, a topic that has recently gained prominence.

For years I have been told by various people that the IBU has cases in the works, that soon I will hear about them, that they know some people are doping and are about to catch them.

I don’t doubt that Carrabre is a true believer in the anti-doping fight. He gets pretty fired up about things, as does fellow Executive Board member Max Cobb.

But the cases that I heard rumors of, even promises of, have never materialized.

The Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) was supposed to revolutionize anti-doping and indicate if athletes had been blood doping even when no illicit substance was detected. That sure would have been handy due to the drugs’ short detection windows and athletes’ and doctors’ strategies of “microdosing.”

But there have been no doping bans on the basis of ABP in skiing or biathlon [5]. I don’t think that even the most optimistic of fans really believes that this is because there is no blood doping going on.

What does that mean? That ABP doesn’t work, that it wouldn’t hold up in arbitration? Or that something else is going on?

It would be hard to look at IBU President Anders Besseberg’s behavior in the last two years – for instance, the IBU’s continued insistence that it’s totally fine to hold events in Russia, or his demeanor and statements during meetings with athletes – and conclude anything other than that he is sympathetic to Russia and would even more generally like to simply pretend that there was no scandal in his sport.

Having a few true anti-doping crusaders on a governing board does not clean sport make. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but probably, it just makes these crusaders even more frustrated.

“When the McLaren Report first came out, I thought that doping was the greatest threat to our sport,” U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee told FasterSkier in January 2017. “However after watching the last few weeks play out, I believe that the IBU’s reluctance to meaningfully act to prevent doping is the greatest threat to our sport.”

Then there is FIS. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, there were 46 skiers implicated in the McLaren report. Not all of them, obviously, were at the 2014 Olympics or Paralympics, yet as far as anyone can tell, FIS has done nothing to investigate the other cases, some of which include alleged anti-doping rule violations.

A FIS whistleblower just leaked a bunch of old blood profile data to an international team of journalists.

(Which, by the way, how can I get in on that? Hi? I’m over here! I know a lot about doping in skiing and I also how to do statistics!)

The data is interesting, but nothing can really be done with it, as it is old and from the days before ABP was a policy. Without the journalists or their experts explaining how they decided what an “abnormal or highly abnormal” blood profile is, it’s impossible to judge what percentage of the athletes they identify as potentially having doped actually were likely dopers.

But perhaps this indicates that someone within FIS is frustrated with how things are going. If you cared about skiing being clean, cared about doing your job well, and listened to Kasper say things like “sanctioning entire countries is purely political and I do not agree with this,” you might be frustrated too.

And here’s the last thing. In this whole scandal we are talking about one country. That’s Russia, and it has led to a lot of ideological discussion.

But it’s not really about Russia.

Yes, the IOC and the IBU and FIS want to keep Russia happy, because their sports are popular in Russia, the Russian athletes are talented and popular even outside the country, because Russia is great at hosting events, and because Russian fans travel all over to watch competitions. That’s part of it.

And yes, some commentators have complained that athletes are being punished just because they are Russian. They have complained that this is a U.S.-led effort reviving Cold War hostilities. That we are Russophobes. That we are hypocrites because American sports stars dope too, and/or that lots of countries dope but we just haven’t found out about it.

But again, that’s being far too myopic about things, and believing that this scandal is only a thing unto itself, not part of the bigger problem.

If this scandal had taken place with Norway, Sweden, Germany, the United States, or any other country at the center – the outcome or the (lack of) speed of its resolution probably wouldn’t have been much different [6].

I – yes, I’m among those journalists accused of being hypocritical and anti-Russian, I’ve even been compared to Nazis, gee that was fun – I would chase this scandal just as hard if it had arisen in any of these other countries.

In fact, I would have investigated it with even more fervor if these were American or Canadian skiers and biathletes we were talking about. And presumably most of the evidence would have been in English, so I could investigate more effectively, without translating things I was looking for into Russian, searching the internet or evidence documents, and then translating the Russian back into English, in a crappy game of “telephone”.

I think that the North American athletes I routinely interview are aware that if I found out they were cheating, I would have no remorse and they would have nowhere to hide.

Just as I’m not a hypocrite, these sports organizations aren’t, either – well, they are, but not in this way, not when it comes to nationality. The claims that various decisions just come from Russian money and bribes are missing the point.

Whether coming from Russia or elsewere, these organizations don’t want a big scandal. They don’t want to rewrite their results sheets. The athletes who missed out on medals they probably should have taken home? These organizations don’t really care about athletes.

They are just an unfortunate bit of collateral damage, but oh well.

Time will march on. A new race will be held. It will be an exciting race! We will all be caught up in it.

Maybe Pellegrino will upset Klæbo.

Maybe an American will finally win a medal.

Maybe Fourcade will mess up his first stage, but then climb back to gold anyway.

Maybe Makarainen will mess up all her shooting stages, and we will all watch rapt to see whether she can pass 15 people on the final loop. Maybe she can.

Maybe Harvey will finally truly become the Prince of Quebec, crowned with an Olympic medal.

Maybe the breakaway will succeed.

Or maybe the favorite will win, but we will be enthralled until the final moment, watching to see whether they will pull it off.

Soon, we will forget about those athletes whom we were wondering about, the ones who maybe probably should have a medal stashed in their safe deposit box somewhere and a whole lot more sponsor money than they have now.

Those athletes will slip farther and farther to the back of our minds. In the forefront will be the day’s competition – so amazing! – and the big happy family that is sport.

Actual clean sport is not, and never was, these organizations’ goal.

*****

Footnotes:

[1] On the topic of skiers who were cleared by CAS: Maxim Vylegzhanin’s sample from Sochi also had scratches on it and had an incorrectly reported specific gravity; the two other members of the men’s relay team also had marks on their sample bottles, and one had a sample whose specific gravity was too high to be believable; two sprinters had marks on their sample bottles and for one, there as also a foreign fiber inside the bottle. Julia Ivanova, whose ban was not overturned by CAS, had an impossibly high salt value in her urine sample.

[2] I actually think CAS does work. CAS handles far more than doping cases – they handle contract disputes, team selection, trades, anything you can think of that would need arbitration. And as far as I know, they do a good job. This is the first CAS decision that has left me truly baffled.

[3] Term limits, man. We really, really need term limits.

[4] I’m not going to talk in much detail in this piece about WADA, which alternatingly does the right thing and the wrong thing, and often does the wrong thing for a very long time first. But at least in the last year or so, WADA is no worse than any other group, and indeed maybe a bit better.

[5] Blood profiles have certainly led to targeted testing, which caught athletes before the 2014 Olympics. But nobody bothered to try an ABP case, that we know of. Nor, seemingly, did the biathletes that the McLaren Report alleges were doping – Olga Vilukhina and Yana Romanova – fail their ABP’s. Either ABP is not being used, or it is not being successful and the details of the cases are never made public.

[6] If the perpetrator of this scandal hadn’t been Russia, I think the main difference might have been the reaction within that different country. I don’t think the Norwegian public would react the same way the Russian public has. Each place has its own culture around sport and what it means, and government also plays various different roles in supporting and controlling sport. But the reaction from the international organizations? Things would probably be much the same.